Nick Webb discusses the contradictions in a new Agricultural Bill aimed at protecting British farmers and food standards.
Photo by Travis Essinger
In early 2020, the UK government introduced a new Agriculture Bill, phasing out the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that Britain has been a part of since 1973.
The new Bill claims to attempt to improve conditions for farmers, and provide economic incentives for more environmentally sustainable farming practices. The Bill, however, has come under criticism from many, including the National Farmers’ Union, the DUP, and animal welfare campaigners.
The UK’s new Agriculture Bill promises ‘public money for public goods’– offering subsidies to farmers who, rather than concentrating on volume of land available to be cultivated, deliver universal benefits which do not naturally offer any economic reward: clean water and air, and an increase in biodiversity.
When drafting the Bill, farmers, and environmentalists campaigned to ensure the addition of clauses to protect food standards and not allow low-quality food imports to be a part of future trade deals post-Brexit.
Due to extensive erosion of soil on ploughed fields, the Bill aims to combat potential future food shortages and crises of food security by rewarding farmers who are able to protect the soil with which they work. This can be done through measures like crop rotation, and using fewer unnatural fertilisers.
While the EU has often been criticised as being too overbearing and hands on with enforcing strict rules and regulations, a new Environmental Bill, which is also making its way through Parliament, is be needed to ensure standards are kept post-Brexit. Without EU enforcement, it is feared that the Agriculture Bill’s authority will not be sufficient to impose fines on farmers who choose to ignore standard practices.
As it stands, the Agriculture Bill lacks enough detail and variation to protect all farmers, and does not hold strict enough measures to punish those who go against the rules.
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While much in the Agriculture Bill can be applauded, critics point out that many measures are either impractical – random patches of land put aside for biodiversity are all well and good, but many species need larger areas to thrive, and having adjacent areas still used for industrial farming would make the practice largely defunct – or lack the details and protections required to ensure standards are maintained.
Absent from the Bill is a guarantee of enforcing a minimum standard of British food, either home grown or through imports. Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson has warned that “the bill opens up the flood gates to cheap food imports into the UK from around the world. This food will not have been produced to the same standards achieved consistently by farmers in Northern Ireland. These imports will serve to drive markets down at a time when local farmers are under tremendous pressure.” This comes after George Eusitce, the Environment Secretary, refused to rule out the possibility of “chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef” being imported into the UK.
While paying subsidies for farms to provide public goods (clean water and air) could work for smaller farmers, the Agriculture Bill also offers subsidies for improving productivity – a practice which most frequently includes the use of toxic pesticides, or intensive and space-reducing forms of animal farming. These larger, more intensive farms are also usually more profitable, and therefore less likely to need to apply for government subsidies.
Amendments to the Bill in order to protect British food standards have been put forward by groups of Labour and Rebel Conservative MPs, however these have all been voted down.
What needs to be added are amendments not only to protect food standards, but to also protect the land and encourage more environmental practices (without also encouraging the opposite). While some elements of the Bill can be praised, the lack of details and environmental protections mean that the benefits are outweighed by the potentially catastrophic costs.
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